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Does Trump order echo the past?

Yoshio Matsumoto (courtesy photo)1 / 2
A sign ordering those of Japanese Ancestry to report to Civil Control Station in San Francisco. (Photo courtesy of Yo Matsumoto)2 / 2

President Donald Trump's recent ban on immigration from seven countries has one Woodbury man drawing parallels from his past.

Yoshio Matsumoto was among the Japanese Americans bound for internment camps following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, an act that plunged America into World War II.

His studies at the University of California-Berkeley were interrupted when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 two months later Feb. 19, 1942. The order designated much of the West Coast as a military zone and set into motion the internment of about 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry.

In the weeks between the attack on Pearl Harbor and Roosevelt's order, decades-long prejudice against Japanese Americans began boiling over when Matsumoto returned to UC-Berkeley for the spring semester.

"Being Japanese and looking Japanese, you immediately felt fear walking outside," he said. "I felt that everybody was looking at me when I was walking down the street."

His internment saw him separated from his family for several years, forcing them to abandon their home and business in southern California.

Now in his mid-90s, Matsumoto, a retired engineer who's been living in Woodbury since 1961, reflects on the past and says he often questions now whether Muslim Americans could share a similar fate.

That question will also be explored when the Minnesota History Center and the Japanese American Citizens League hosts a day of remembrance event to honor the 75th anniversary of the internment of Japanese Americans on Feb. 19. The event aims to honor Japanese Americans who volunteered and served during the war, and will also explore the similarities of current events and the past, raising the question of whether history could repeat itself.

The Trump administration's executive order, signed Jan. 27, has sought to halt refugees, immigrants and visa holders from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the country. The order has been met with national and local protests around the Twin Cities, as well as legal challenges arguing the order is unconstitutional.

Although the president's order does not authorize the detention of residents from these countries who are permanent residents, some local leaders have expressed concern for the power of such orders and the authority they grant.

Like the most recent executive order, which doesn't name Muslims specifically, Roosevelt's Order 9066 never referenced Japanese residents. Rather, Roosevelt gave military leaders broad power to ban any citizen.

The means in which the two orders were imposed bear troubling resemblance, said Gordon Nakagawa, a JACL member, whose parents were interned following Executive Order 9066.

Ongoing moves through executive orders on behalf of the government, Nakagawa said, is moving down a similar path that led to the incarceration of Japanese Americans.

"I know it's a different time and different set of historical circumstances, but there are too many points of convergence and intersects between the Japanese American experience and what Muslim Americans are facing right now," he said. "It's guilt by association."

Racial tension and suspicion of East Asian people had been growing after the turn of the 20th century in the United States, Nakagawa said.

In San Diego where Matsumoto was born and raised, landlords refused to rent to nonwhites in the more affluent parts of San Diego. So he and his family lived in a neighborhood mainly home to African Americans, and Italian, Greek, Mexican and Chinese immigrants.

Matsumoto befriended a number of Greek and Italian Americans his age, who like him were born to foreign parents. His mother learned Spanish to better communicate with their Mexican neighbors, who also taught her how to prepare tamales.

Matsumoto's parents would speak Japanese to their children at home, although Matsumoto admits his understanding of the language has always been limited.

He was Nisei, meaning second-generation in Japanese. Born in the United States, he was, therefore, an American citizen.

His parents, however, were prohibited from becoming naturalized citizens until 1952, following the Immigration Exclusion Act of 1924. The act also banned emigration from Japan to the United States entirely.

California laws prevented interracial marriage. William Randolph Hearst-owned newspapers often published editorials drumming up fears of the "Yellow Peril," a sentiment that spanned from the 1880s until the war. The viewpoint invoked fear that people from East Asia were a threat and would soon take over West Coast businesses.

"That was happening to us Japanese and Chinese in those days," Matsumoto said. "There was a lot of resentment."

His family owned a grocery store and later worked as fruit vendors before the start of the war. But like many Japanese families, they pushed their children to get college educations, while knowing opportunities would be limited when they graduated.

Matsumoto enrolled at UC-Berkeley to study engineering mainly because a group of his friends were too.

While visiting San Diego after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he and a group of friends were kicked out of a restaurant where they attempted to eat.

"You're not welcome here. You're the enemy," the people in the restaurant told them.

Signs began appearing around cities instructing Japanese and those of Japanese origin to report to a certain location where they were bused to nearby assembly centers when Matsumoto returned to UC-Berkeley for the spring semester.

Many Japanese Americans living in California were sent to fairgrounds and racetracks before being sent to more permanent internment camps that were scattered across the country.

Matsumoto was sent to the Tanforan Racetrack, roughly 10 miles south of San Francisco. The grounds were quickly cleaned out and sealed with barbed wire fencing and staffed with armed soldiers.

He lived in a barracks with five other students, while other families lived in tight quarters sometimes inside the empty horse stalls that were whitewashed over a few days prior. The stench of horse manure still lingered as people carrying only a suitcase and bedding made their way into the assembly areas.

"A lot of people got sick in those because of the horse manure," Matsumoto said.

Latrines with toilets and showers were located throughout the facilities, because the living areas had no plumbing.

Matsumoto received $12 a month, which is roughly the equivalent of $187 in 2017, while working in one of the dining halls.

Meanwhile, his parents relocated to a racetrack north of San Diego. Throughout the war and incarceration period, Matsumoto never saw or heard from his family until the camps closed.

Matsumoto hit a string of luck and was among the 30 Japanese-American students allowed to leave the assembly centers and camps to attend Washington University in St. Louis.

After graduating in 1944, the Army drafted him, and he eventually deployed to Berlin, Germany, to help rebuild the city after the Germans surrendered in the spring of 1945.

Before shipping out to Europe, Matsumoto proposed to his future wife, Alice, who he began dating after meeting in the assembly center.

He reunited with his family for the first time in almost five years in Detroit where his family had moved after the camps closed.

The 3M Co. offered Matsumoto a job, and he moved to Woodbury where he's lived for almost 55 years.

He and his family never moved back to California, and his parents would seldom talk about their experiences.

"There was a lot of shame," Nakagawa said, adding that his parents would often meet his curious questions with superficial or short responses.

Occasionally his parents would discuss the good times they had and the connections they made with other Japanese Americans.

"Other times, and quietly, they'd talk about some of the terrible conditions in the camp and being under surveillance 24/7," Nakagawa said. "That was very infrequent."

Strong calls for reparations from later generations of Japanese Americans prompted President Ronald Reagan to sign the Civil Liberties Act in 1988, which offered a formal apology from the U.S. government and $20,000 in reparations to more than 82,000 Japanese Americans who were interned.

The federal commission that looked into the events determined the government's actions were based on racial prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.

Still, for older Japanese people who were relocated and put in camps, many died before receiving reparations.

"Our parents are the ones who lost everything — their businesses, their homes. They didn't get any money or any apology," Matsumoto said. "We were all loyal to this country, and just because we look different or look like the enemy doesn't necessarily mean that we should be treated any different."

No Japanese American was ever charged with espionage or other crimes against the United States.

Matsumoto has several grandchildren, one of whom followed his grandfather's footsteps and studied at Washington University.

His American friends refer to him as Matt, short for Matsumoto, while his Japanese friends simply refer to him as Yo, for Yoshio.

He occasionally gives presentations at his church about what he and other Japanese Americans experienced.

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